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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Opposition stumbles into talks

Opposition stumbles into talks

PRINCE Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy half-committed their parties to political

compromise this week with the man they continue to say they will never work with:

Hun Sen.

The Funcinpec leader agreed to call off street protests, visit his father King Norodom

Sihanouk in Siem Reap and declare that his party would attend the first session of

the new National Assembly on Sept 24.

On Sept 15, he did just that. Rainsy followed suit the next day.

The pair breakfasted in the same hotel Sept 16 - at different tables. Diplomatic

sources said they ignored each other.

But politically, the two had just made huge concessions to the CPP, especially since

both had followers that were killed in street riots over the past week, supporting

their leaders' calls for electoral fraud to be investigated and for Hun Sen to step

down. The "breakthrough" was made on condition that their problems be sorted

out in tripartite "working groups" over the next week or so.

What did Ranariddh ask for in return for promising to lead his party into the National

Assembly? Simply that he and his fellow MPs now under "country arrest"

be allowed to leave Cambodia.

The CPP said no, but told Ranariddh that he at least would be free to leave after

he made his concession in front of the world's press. Ranariddh agreed.

However, at 6pm - just three hours after Ranariddh had committed his party to talks

- airport police refused him permission to board a plane from Siem Reap to Bangkok.

Ranariddh's chief of cabinet Kong Vibol immediately phoned Hun Sen's adviser Prak

Sokhonn and was told there must have been a mistake at the airport. Ranariddh was

free to go, but every other Funcinpec MP and the party's entire steering committee

could not.

Funcinpec was flabbergasted. One MP just shook his head and moaned, "We can't

trust them."

So what's the plan? "Plan? We don't have one!" he exclaimed. "What

do we do now?"

Funcinpec chiefs are now saying that Ranariddh didn't really want to leave but was

instead "just testing [the CPP], in principle". But they fear a "trick"

has been played on them.

The CPP does not want to see the opposition set up some sort of "government

in exile".

If Ranariddh does decide to leave Cambodia, and is allowed to, it might be the perfect

face-saving exercise for all concerned.

Ranariddh would be absent when all the deals are struck and a government formed.

If that doesn't happen, there could yet be a destablizing stalemate. But his party

says Ranariddh has no intention of going anywhere.

There is no suggestion that the King - who it is said advised Ranariddh to enter

parliament and keep up the struggle - knew of the CPP's plan to renege on the Thai

deal.

Ranariddh's compromise was part of the deal brokered by Thai Deputy Foreign Minister

Suk-humbhand Paribatra Sept 14 - and a sign apparently of the CPP's good faith. "[The]

Thai deal gave us all a good roadmap for future negotiations," said one Western

diplomat.

Another diplomat said that the main point Rainsy and Ranariddh wanted brokered by

Sukhum-bhand was that they be allowed to leave Cambodia.

The international pressure on the oppostion to fold their tents is enormous. One

cannot find a single diplomat to say anything other than Ranariddh and Rainsy should

begin talking to Hun Sen.

Sukhumbhand also suggested that Cambodia's government ministries be apportioned as

follows: 11 for the CPP; 8 to Funcinpec and 3 to the Sam Rainsy Party.

Funcinpec would also get two of the five key ministries the CPP had previously said

were non-negotiable: possibly finance; almost certainly foreign affairs. Interior,

defense and justice would be left to the CPP.

CPP President Chea Sim agreed to both these suggestions.

Ranariddh, by saying Funcinpec would attend parliament, guarantees legitimacy and

immunity for his MPs. Both privileges were under threat by the King in his statement

of Sept 12, addressed to the newly-elected 43 Funcinpec and 15 Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers

if they failed to turn up. The King's statement, insiders say, was manufactured directly

by the CPP.

But Ranariddh's decision also means that Funcipec's two remaining electoral gripes

- reconciling the 4 million or so unused ballots and revising the formula used to

apportion seats to votes - have been pushed to the background.

The Prince had said both were "not negotiable" before Funcinpec would enter

parliament.

More importantly, Rainsy, and later Ranariddh, used them to spark the "popular"

street riots that resulted in the deaths of up to 18 supporters, according to rights

workers who are still investigating the whereabouts of missing people.

Funcinpec now says it will insist on these issues being ironed out in the working

group meetings with the CPP and the SRP. But the CPP showed no interest in talking

about either point at a techincal summit hosted by the King earlier this month, and

are unlikely to do so now.

One CPP source predicted before Ranariddh's meeting with the King: "The electoral

issues are over, especially the problem with the unused ballots. You can be sure

in Cambodia that no-one is going to find 4.5 million unused ballots. The opposition

knows this and has used it for sure; they knew they could not be wrong.

"And it's not possible for the CPP to go back to another formula to allocate

seats. The infrastructure is not there. Cambodia can't redo the election - or even

a count-back on the smallest part [of it]."

Another CPP source said that Hun Sen would never agree to step into a parliament

where there was a questionmark over his nomination as prime minister, or that of

party president Chea Sim as National Assembly president.

"That won't be acceptable for the King either," said one Khmer analyst.

"Imagine, the King opens the National Assembly then everyone leaves the room?

Unacceptable!"

Two-thirds of parliament's 122 members - that is, the CPP and at least half of Funcinpec

in tandem - have to agree on the nominations of Hun Sen as prime minister and Chea

Sim as president. For the CPP, they are non-negotiable candidates.

It has also been confirmed to the Post that the Assembly will convene at the Royal

Palace in Siem Reap.

Ranariddh said he doesn't want the Assembly presidency, but that he can't work under

Hun Sen. Funcinpec is desperate to find a job eminent enough for their leader, the

Prince, but the options seem very limited.

All the CPP seems to want is for Fun-cinpec and the SRP to agree to go the parliament

on Sept 24 of their own will. That process has at least begun, albeit shakily.

MPs within Funcinpec are worried that the CPP may have already brought the 20 extra

votes needed to give them a constitutional majority.

"It's $80,000 a vote now," said one Funcinpec MP. "The price is going

up... And they've done their homework. One of our MPs has a wife with liver problems

and can't afford her treatment. He was told [if he voted with the CPP] she'd get

the treatment she needed for the rest of her life."

Rainsy has previously accused the CPP of trying to buy or intimidate some of his

MPs.

If a summit meeting between the leadership of the three parties, proposed to take

place Sept 22 in Siem Reap, ends in stalemate - or if agreement is not reached among

the working groups - "then, believe me, even the CPP doesn't know what will

happen," said one CPP insider.

Eight days of violent street protest intensified pressure on all parties to parley,

but it was Ranariddh who blinked first - either by design and "in perfect timing",

as one CPP official said; or after he realized he was "trapped" by Sam

Rainsy in a "street theater" from which he could never win, according to

a diplomat's analysis; or because it was his "duty to end the bloodshed"

and that the protesters' sacrifice had created a "turning point", according

to the Prince himself.

"Ranariddh doesn't care about the people," said one diplomat. "But

Rainsy needs more martyrs. Remember Rainsy has no consideration for Ranariddh, he

considers him stupid. But Ranariddh knows he has been used... trapped by Rainsy in

a game where he could only lose.

"Everyone knows what the consequences would be of Rainsy's activities. A bloodbath.

Ranariddh didn't want to be associated with that."

Rainsy, the diplomat said, never intended the protests to provoke agreement. "He

genuinely wants Hun Sen out... he has no interest in the process [of negotiation]

going normally."

A CPP official agreed: "[Ranariddh] had confirmation that the protests could

go out of control... The timing was perfect for Funcinpec. Rainsy is immobilized

in [UN special representative Lakhan] Mehrotra's office. Now was the time to break

the alliance with Rainsy... and Rainsy knew this was coming," he said.

Many people are now talking about what Chea Sim called "dark elements"

who were manipulating the riots, out of Ranariddh's, and possibly also Rainsy's,

control.

The core problem remains that Ranariddh still maintains he will not work with Hun

Sen.

"Look, in Cambodia you negotiate down to the last day. If you get an agreement

before then people just wonder that they probably didn't get all they could,"

said one senior diplomat.

"Didn't Ranariddh say he couldn't work with Hun Sen in 1988, and again in 1991?

"This is the beginning... In negotiations you don't talk about what you want.

That's unsaid. You talk about what you're prepared to give up."

For Funcinpec, the talk has been about electoral fraud and Hun Sen's ouster - perhaps,

therefore, merely points of concession. What it hasn't been talked about is the control

of key ministries; amnesties for resistance generals Nhek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal;

a position for Ranariddh; or power-sharing in the provinces.

Diplomats and local politicians disagree on these points. "Bun Chhay and Kosal

aren't being mentioned... [their positions] are not on the table. Bun Chhay hates

Ranariddh anyway," said one diplomat.

"No," said the CPP source, "Bun Chhay and Kosal are negotiable. But

they won't be allowed back in the country."

Power-sharing, it is generally agreed, is a secondary matter, not likely a serious

part of future negotiations.

One diplomat said Ranariddh would be content as an Assembly member; others say a

more important position should be made for him. Ranariddh himself says he would be

happy with being a "simple MP" - as long as he could wave across the Assembly

floor at Hun Sen, simply an MP for Kandal.

"If there is no satisfaction, it may be time to go back to the streets again...

not because of Funcinpec, but because of Rainsy or someone else who is pulling the

strings," the CPP source said. "But I believe Ranariddh is genuine."

He said the Prince was "bluff and pretence" in "playing this game

to the death" - as the CPP is prepared to do.

"Funcinpec will agree to the Thai deal, but the National Assembly is just a

first step. There are more difficult negotiations ahead but Rainsy is no longer in

the game," a foreign diplomat said. "But Rainsy may have no interest in

this process going smoothly.

"Funcinpec needs the money. They have been deprived of it for a year or more.

They've already divided up [government positions]."

Funcinpec may well demand that Hun Sen loyalists Hok Lundy, the national police chief,

and Kandal deputy governor Khun Kim be removed from office. The CPP is already preparing

to shuffle their governorships and many could be sacrificed for the sake of a coalition.

Various CPP sources and two diplomats have confirmed that Lundy and Khun Kim may

be axed.

"All Funcinpec has to do is ask," said one CPP official. "Hun Sen

had to do the same thing in 1993... he got rid of names that were considered very

important within the CPP but no one even remembers them now." On the other hand,

some analysts say that Hun Sen would consider it anathema to have to bow to any such

concession.

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